Blog entry #13 – First and last we remember the most.

Today is the First Day of Wrestling practice at Lake Stevens High School yippee! The power is out due to a wind storm but School is still a go. An ominous start to the season.

Even though the first legal practice is today there was a ton of work by both wrestlers and coaches put in prior to this first day. Morning conditioning, off-season club practices, pre-season tournaments are all the normal activities but there is an ongoing educational process most great coaches and wrestlers partake in on their own to prepare. I️ read books that will give me some nugget I️ can use to enhance my craft. Most coaches attend preseason clinics to get them going and add to their acumen. I️ also try and visit a University program or the like, prior to the season to get some juice. This year I️ spent four days at the OTC working with Terry Steiner and the woman’s program. I️ am ready and excited to get this thing going.

One thing I’m a true believer in is having a plan. It’s not only best practice to have a daily plan it’s also a liability necessity. If anything ever happens within your program where a lawsuit is brought you as a coach need a record that shows you covered the essentials of safety and your structure sought to best protect your athletes.

This morning I’m planning the first practice of my 31st season at Lake. I️ have every practice plan I’ve ever written stored in my office. I️ keep last years plans close at hand so I️ can refer back to them on occasion. This is not just a technical tool, it’s a lesson plan and a journal or what we did, how we did it, when we did it, why we did it and what was talked about beyond Wrestling each and every day.

Beyond the daily plan I️ have a season plan and a end of the season plan for peek performance. These are great tools to provide direction and a resource for guidance.

Technically, I️ as a coach want to know what I’ve covered and in what detail. If there is a glaring weakness in our team technically we can usually refer back to the plan to see if we have been deficient in our instruction or focus.

One of the great things about this job is the new beginnings we get to experience. Each and every year there’s a new start and with that new start there is hope and wonder. The possibilities in front of us and the work building up to this day gives confidence that this year will be a success.

Blog entry 12 – What I talk about when I’m talking about wrestling. 

Just spent the weekend in Colorado Springs working with the woman’s program and spending time with a number of coaches. Anytime I’m with another wrestling coach there is learning to be had and the growth can be transformative. We should never stop learning and trying to hone our craft. I’m a true believer that if you don’t change you eventually won’t continue to maintain or build success. The subjects covered this weekend were as follows – technique (pressuring opponents from neutral, being purposeful with our hands, using fakes to pressure, shot recovery, go behinds, front headlocks, double up shots and a bunch of other cool stuff), practice planning, motivation, integrity/humility (Thomas Gilman), peaking, dealing with different personalities, the issues facing the elite athlete outside of the wrestling room, a need for a life class after wrestling for our  World and Olympic team members, beer, the process and being mindful and how to properly grill a steak. Whew! That’s a lot in two days and I didn’t even get to all the awesome friendship stuff and the bonding. 

Since we are on the subject of working on our craft this would be a great time to share my coaches reading list. So much of the sport revolves around understanding people. Reading gives us so much insight and reflection it is, I believe, essential to truly expand as a coach or teacher. 

I will warn you that my list is not your standard coaching fare. Here’s the list with a related blurb. 

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy – a real account of an athlete dealing with not only the struggles of attending the Citadel but also an account of having a toxic parent. 

Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood by Jeffrey Marx – This is a great lesson in how to treat athletes, what a programs focus should be and how thinking out of the box can lead to success. 

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey – If you are into focus, mental preparation, THE PROCESSS, applicable practice situations to improve both mentally and technically. This may be about tennis but it has so much information that applies to all sports, especially wrestling. I give this book to all my athletes who struggle with performance anxiety. 

The Water Is Wide – a memoir by Pat Conroy – If you’re a young teacher you need to read this. If you’re a teacher and work in a school of diversity this is required reading. 

Old Man and the Sea –  Earnest Hemingway – An epic struggle with incredible connections to psychology. 

A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee – A portrait of an athlete striving for perfection by a great author in McPhee. 

Trying To Save Piggy Snead by John Irving – Irving was a college wrestler and even coached his boys when they were in high school. In this book he has notes on pararalels between writing and wrestling. His description of Dan Gable is fantastic. 

Last but not least….

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl- What really drives people to survive in harrowing situations? You can choose a few things in life. 

Blog entry #11 – another beginning

It’s been a while since I last posted. A lot of things have kept me away from the blog including a shoulder operation, travel and the start of a new school year. 

In a week I start my 33rd season as a coach and 31st at Lake Stevens. I have never thought of myself as a creature of habit but teaching and coaching in the same school for 31 years is a dead giveaway. There is a history and rhythm to being in one place so long. A connection to the past links me to a time and people that are long gone but lives vividly in my mind. What they say about the first and last memories are true. I can mentally account for my first team at Lake Stevens like it was yesterday. When I arrived there were 800 students in four grades and now we have over 2,600. My schools size and demographic have changed but my mission is still the same – take each and every student/athlete as far as I can as a human being, student and athlete. This has been the opening salvo of my coaching philosophy from day one and it still is today. This past weekend I was inducted into the Washington Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. It was a fantastic honor and also an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done and who has helped me along the way. I have been fortunate to share this journey with my family and two assistant coaches who have stuck with me from the start. It’s amazing to think that the three of us coaches have plugged away at this for over three decades now. I believe the reason are many but one thing we all share is a common philosophical statement. We believe helping kids become good adults is paramount and trumps winning, losing and all the other outcome based accessories some people deem so important. Outcome is always a function of process and philosophy. Another reason I believe our staff has stuck together is ownership and having a roll. We all know what we best bring to the table and take ownership of the program. This great pride each of us has is a precursor to the toil and dedication it takes to be successful over a long period of time. If I was a young coach starting a program the selection of assistant coaches would be the biggest duty I would take. I was extremely lucky to stumble onto the guys I work with but there was also some training that occurred along the way. We have definitely grown together and our desire to continuously improve has been a hallmark of our careers. 

As we head into this upcoming season I look forward to working with my long time coaching partners as much as I do the great kids we have in our program. Our time together as a staff is precious and fleeting. I realized this past weekend that I am much closer to the end than I am to the beginning. Crazy how it creeps up on you. 

My goal is to post regularly throughout the season as an in-depth look at what a high school wrestling coach sees and thinks. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I do. 

Blog entry #10 – Don’t be fooled by the fat guy jogging down the road. 

We are in trouble. It’s easy to be clouded by the recent successes in the wrestling world but there is an underlying, incidious trend in our sport that if we don’t act now will eventually be our downfall. 

At 40 I ran a 3:18 marathon weighing 206 pounds. Today I can run maybe a 10 min mile without stopping at 215 lbs. After a mile I have to stop because my hip gets tight. If you drive past me on the road you might say, “wow he is still running great after all these years.” But they keep driving and don’t see me stop and walk the next half mile. Viewing the world through small positive snapshots can be deceiving. 

This summer’s wrestling has been off the charts positive. USA Wrestling’s performance this summer can be deceiving. Kinda like when I go for a run around the block. At first glance wrestling in this country looks as good as it’s ever been and in many ways it is. I believe our National Team will be at the top of the world for years to come. Woman’s wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports in our country and could be making inroads into Div 1 Universities. The NCAA Tournament is incredibly successful and a true spectacle. In some parts of the country youth and high school wrestling is as popular as ever. Things look pretty good. I truly believe our best wrestlers coming out of high school are better than ever. Things are good, ahh. 

Now for the multiple knee and ankle operations, the bad hip and saggy paunch around the midsection of this story. Wrestling is in trouble. According to Mike Moyer and the NWCA the statistics tell us high school participation for boys has declined the past six years with year seven trending the same. 

I didn’t have to see the statistics to know we’ve declined as I’ve watched this trend for the past 10 years in my home state. Not only have our numbers declined in our state but the over-all quality of wrestling has declined. There is not as much push from the bottom up. In high school wrestling there are more forfeits, fewer exciting and crowd building dual meets and therefore less school/community wide interest. From Andy Hamilton’s article last spring, one issue Moyer sees is the lack of home dual meets for high school programs. He said the average has dipped to three home duals per season. Moyer also stated that we need to give the average wrestler a reason to stick with the sport. I agree, we have to make a concerted effort to bring back the dual meet so we can sell our sport to our community. It’s hard though to find the kind of competition that puts people in the seats. 

The above is true, dual meets are important but what Moyer is saying is a symptom of a bigger problem. We are not seeing the fat guy walk as we drive out of sight. The statistics are symptoms of a greater disease. I believe there are two major issues facing wrestling and are at the core of our decline in numbers. 

The most substantial reason for our decline is a lack of quality coaches. Let me repeat that – WE ARE NOT PRODUCING ENOUGH QUALITY COACHES! We are not putting quality coaches in the pipeline as we once did and with the addition of woman’s wrestling the need is even greater. We have fewer and fewer teacher/coaches going into the profession and therefore we have fewer coaches on campus. Putting together large teams takes oversight, time, recruitment and if you show up at 3:00 each day that’s tough to do. There are outliers to this but the best programs generally have coaches that are on staff and in building. 

If we don’t do something about the slow drip of coaches going into education we will continue to decay and wrestling in many states will become a club sport. I would argue that teacher colleges have done more for the sport of wrestling than any other institution or group simply because of the incredible impact teacher/coaches have had on the sport. The downside is we’ve lost so many of these programs to cuts over the years. 

The second issue we face is Football. America’s sport. The sport that, through brain trauma studies and leading the statistics in catastrophic injuries is still very popular and the king of sports on most high school campuses. Here’s the kicker, football is now a year around sport. With the advent of 7 on 7, speed and agility training, off season strength and conditioning and a change in the fundamental scheme that is played, football lends itself to year around training. Wrestling is losing athletes that were at one time their best ally. In 1954 my dad started the wrestling program at his high school as an off-season training  activity for football and an alternative to basketball. Wrestling was and still is a great partner to football but it’s not the trend we are seeing at the high school level. This is especially true with high powered high school football programs like the one at my school. 

It’s not that football is the only sport to become a year around endeavor. Baseball, soccer and pretty much everything else including wrestling are now year around. Sports that wrestling once drew our core athletes from, not the state champs but the athletes that filled out the dual meets that Moyer is talking about are too busy specializing. The only hope in my opinion to again capture some of these athletes is a quality in-building coach. Here in lies the conundrum previously stated – we are losing quality coaches to retirement who is going to take their place and recruit these athletes? 

#wrestling #coaching #nwca #beatthestreets #prowl #nfhs #usawrestling

Blog entry #9 – It’s all about the journey.

Of all the things I’m most proud of during my coaching career providing young people with the opportunity to see the country or world is at the top of the list. Travel affords us a plethora of lessons and learning experiences and it may just be the spark that leads an individual to personal heights otherwise unreachable. One of the reasons I’ve not posted in a while is I’ve been traveling – I’m a voyager at heart fostered by my trips as a high school wrestler.

In 1978, as a junior in high school I took part in an exchange trip to Germany.  Part of the trip included a training camp and the AAU National Tournament. The week prior to leaving for Germany was spent at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois. Not knowing it at the time but this turned into an epic week for this boy from Puyallup, Washington.

I crossed paths for the first time with Dave Schultz. He was a year ahead of me in high school but was training with the senior world team. He was battling in practices with the likes of Humphreys, Lee Kemp and Andre’ Metzger as I was thinking how tired I was getting up three hours earlier from the time change. During the training camp some of the World Team members and their training partners provided a technique clinic for the 300 plus high school wrestlers. Watching Dave show technique I couldn’t get past that he was relatively the same age as me and was leading the clinic like a seasoned teacher. Like all wrestlers we size everyone up, especially if they are our weight class and I had to ask myself, “how would I do against him.” We were at very different levels but this experience in itself gave me an idea of the possibilities in our sport. I believe he placed in the Tiblisi Tournament earlier that year. He was the first and probably only one of two true wrestling phenom’s I’ve seen over the years (I watched firsthand Sadulaev win Cadet Worlds the year he went on to win Senior Worlds and I said to my friend sitting next to me that is the toughest 18 year old I have ever seen.) I never got to watch Dave wrestle at 18 as it was way before the world wide web and believe it or not personal video. As a note of significance: in USA Wrestling history the World Team was still governed by AAU hence the training camp situation along side the AAU Nationals even though the premier high school tournament and largest tournament in the country was USWF Nationals in Iowa City. A few years later USWF would become USA Wrestling’s governing body leaving AAU in the dust.

Two days later I experienced another wrestling great but this time it was up close and personal.  In the finals of AAU Jr Nationals I wrestled a cat named Nate Carr who at the time was considered one of the best high school wrestler in the country. Also in my bracket was the older brother of Rico Chiapparelli and Iowa State All-American Murray Crews. For me, making the finals at a National Tournament and wrestling some pretty good competition along the way was my coming out party as a wrestler. This was my first exposure to wrestling out of state and when I realized I could do really do this.

After getting a my butt whooped by Nate my fellow Washington teammate, Mitch Powers and I snuck into the city of Chicago to watch Eric Clapton play alongside Muddy Waters at Chicago Stadium in what was a monumental blues/rock moment. This was my introduction to blues and an experience that has for sure made my life richer. The the trip back to Concordia that night was very sketchy but a story for another time. I’m sure our coaches would not have been happy if they knew just exactly where we were at early that morning.

What an eye opening experience. In a matter of three days I was afforded the opportunity by some very gracious coaches to see and meet Dave Schultz and Nate Carr, watch music icons Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters and navigate the south side of Chicago at one in the morning, pretty big stuff for a hayseed from Puyallup,WA. All this and we still had a trip to Germany to attend to.

Years later while sitting in my office talking about the upcoming season’s schedule I said to my assistant, “what do you think about taking these guys to the Virginia Duals?” He laughed and than we went to work making it happen. You must realize, Lake Stevens, WA is a far stretch from Norfolk, VA and a trip for twenty people for a wrestling tournament is a lot to ask of the administration, parents and wrestlers. Fortunately, we had garnered some success and had a little clout with our administration who was very accommodating. It helped that I took my Athletic Director and strength and conditioning coach with us to make this an opportunity for more than just the team and coaches. That initial trip in 1998 started it all and the experience for many of these kids who had never been out of the state before was a selling point for years to come. One of the edicts I’ve always maintained about travel and my high school wrestling program is that it must be beneficial to the wrestling team first and foremost. The wrestling component of the trip is paramount and we will not take a trip just to go on a trip. Of course, no matter where we travel there will be ancillary educational benefits but the wrestling competition must fit the needs of our team. Since that inaugural trip we have attended the Powerade Tournament in Western PA, wrestled in the Phillipsburg Duals in Eastern PA, competed in the Final Four in Easton PA against the likes of Blair Academy, High Point, NJ and Easton. We have traveled to Minnesota for “The Clash” and competed against Apple Valley and many other nationally ranked programs. We have traveled south to California to The Doc B, Torrance Tournament of Champions and El Cajon. We have watched the ball drop in Times Square twice and been greeted in the office of Washington Senator Patty Murray in Washington DC.  We just recently spent a week in San Diego this past summer working out with Poway HS. All this on top of the trips to numerous college campuses, Vegas, Fargo, Western Regionals and many others have opened our kids eyes to the places, people, culture and possibilities that are available to them if they are willing to take the step. The lessons of travel are many and go from taking care of yourself, dealing with others in close quarters for an extended period of time, being respectful of other people and their ways, eating strange food, being flexible, being attentive to your surroundings and maybe the most important – breaking down stereotypes.

Yesterday, I posted on Facebook a picture of a trophy in a box of junk I found while cleaning the garage. The trophy was one my son, Burke had won at the prestigious Powerade Tournament his junior year in high school. The trophy got taken to the dump but the memories of that trip, the great competition and watching the ball drop on New Years Eve in NYC, like my trip to Chicago as a kid, will last a lifetime.

Sitting in hotel room in Berlin, Germany this past week during the Charlottesville, VA attacks and protests I reflected on the history of Berlin, the insidious nature of bigotry and racism and what can happen in a society that allows hate to grow and fester. I also recognized all the great people I ran across in my travels to Germany, their kindness and how they have taken in a record number of refugees and function in what may be one of, if not the most diverse country in the world. I thought about how their horrific past has molded their current country and how we can continue to learn valuable lessons from it. I reflected on my trip to Auschwitz years ago and what atrocities hate can reap. The wider scope of thought and understanding is fostered by travel and spending time meeting others. The true gift of travel is learning the average person, no matter where they live is not much different than us and like us wants peace in this world.

#wrestling, #coaching, #travel, #usawrestling

Blog Entry #8 – Releasing your child to the sport.

Burke and I

Jr. and Cadet Nationals is underway this week in Fargo, ND in my opinion the toughest high school tournament in the country. It doesn’t seem that long ago my summer, actually my year revolved around “Fargo” and what transpired over a ten day period each July.  You see I was invested way beyond your average high school coach for many years because I was also a parent. There are a lot of coach/parents just like I was that make the trek to Fargo each summer with there sons or daughters. Each year dreams of scholarships and stop signs are realized or shattered on the floor of the Fargo Dome. That investment by parents can be both a blessing or curse to the athlete competing depending of course on how it’s all handled.

The song “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun (1986) with Tom Cruise will forever have a sour effect on me every time I hear it. When my son was a first year cadet he was up 9-0 going into the break in the freestyle finals against a tough kid from Ohio. He needed just one more point to tech fall and become a National Champion. With “Danger Zone” humming in the background he proceeded to lose 10-9 and take second. It was heart breaking to watch him be so close and not be able to close the deal. After, the coach in me analyzed everything from his warm-up to his par terre defense but the parent in me could only try to console him. There were lessons to be learned and I didn’t have to say anything for him to learn from those lessons. The sport took care of all that and by me opening my big fat mouth I would have only gotten in the way of the natural learning process. He recovered, probably faster than I did and came back the next year to win both Freestyle and Greco being named the OW in Greco and teching his way through his Freestyle bracket. I can’t remember what song played during either one of his finals matches that year.

It is a tough balancing act coaching your own kid and what truly can be considered the parenting “Danger Zone.” There is no separating yourself from wanting him/her to be successful, it’s human nature. We all want the best for our child regardless if its in sports, school, relationships or whatever they are invested in. The tricky part for parents is understanding that ultimately it is not about us as parents, it’s about the well being of our child. For some that’s hard to understand because they are so blinded by the connection and investment they emotionally have put into their child. Due to the personal nature of wrestling and the intimate setting this relationship can get distorted into something other than just a sport. Go to a kids tournament and look at the side of the mat where parents, grand parents, siblings and whoever else climbed in station wagon are all sitting on their knees screaming at the top of their lungs for their little guy to “Get’er done!” In other forms this intense involvement continues for many athletes well into their teenage years. If they make it to Fargo and still have the love and desire to compete they may have endured everything from nightly critiques in the car on the way home from practice to straight up punishment for simply losing to someone who was better than them. I’ve seen just about everything when it comes to parents, coaches and kids and I understand because at one time I was the crazy dad/coach. I understand but I don’t condone poor behavior by parents who justify their actions in the name of competition, toughness or whatever reason they may have to make their kid feel as if the highest value they have is as an athlete. I have told many an athlete, “Wrestling, its what we do it’s not who we are and winning and losing on a mat does not and will not define us.” If you are reading this and you don’t understand that last statement you may have a problem.

When my son was about 13 years old I made a rule for myself, once practice was over and we got in the car to go home I never brought up wrestling. We of course talked about it but I always let him initiate it. To this day we both love wrestling and we probably talk about it in some form each and every day. There were some tough lessons to be learned along the way for me as a parent. Ultimately, I wanted him to know I valued him way beyond on the sport and wanted him to own it for himself and not for me. That may sound obvious but when you spend as much time in the sport as we did and a good portion of each day is dedicated to becoming a better wrestler the message we are sending is huge. Our actions tell our kids what our priorities are and we need to be very cognizant of making sure our kids know we love them regardless of the sport and who they are is not defined by their performance.

Sports are a great conduit for parents and their children. For many of us it’s common ground that we can come together on and forget all our differences or issues. It would be sad to have the sport be something a child resented because a parent didn’t keep it in perspective. Parents should have unconditional love and support first and foremost regardless of what type of athlete their child is.

Go Team USA – Blog entry #7

Happy 4th of July. I’m writing this entry on a plane headed from Cleveland to San Fransisco where I’ll connect to Seattle. Early morning 7 am flight. Ugh. The past five days I was at the combined Woman’s Cadet/Jr World Team Training Camp along with teams from Canada, China and Japan. I will have 14 hours at home to wash my clothes, hang with Beth and get some sleep before heading to San Diego with my high school team. We will be training with Poway High School the next five days. When I return I have exactly two weeks before leaving for the Jr World Championships in Tampere, Finland. Once in Finland we will be attending a week long acclimation camp before the World Championships on August 3&4. 

I am very fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to be a volunteer coach for USA Wrestling. There are so many ancillary benefits being a part of this (thanks Terry Steiner). Being able to attend world class events, work with highly skilled coaches and athletes, travel to incredible places and compete at the highest level is a special opportunity. Beyond all those great things I cherish most the rich friendships I’ve developed over the years and having to really stretch myself as a coach. 

Working with the woman’s program and specifically the World Team is a much different beast than my life’s work of building teams at Lake Stevens High School. I’ve had to look long and hard at how I approach coaching athletes and what my role is with each program. My high school team has my handprints on each and every athlete and we spend years together. For the woman’s program I’m working with athletes I’ve possibly never met before. There are inherent differences between a significantly more individual endeavor in the woman to the building of a high school team within the confines and expectations of an interscholastic program. We have to remember that high school sports are an extension of the learning environment and the end goals are directly tied to the schools mission. In high school we have a broad range of athletes where we hope to provide a healthy experience. In the woman’s program our goals are to develop Olympic level athletes and human beings and the athletes we get to work with are the best in our country and possibly the world at what they do. Most of my high school athletes will finish there career as seniors in high school where as most of the woman have aspirations of competing for years well beyond the Cadet and Jr level.  Their journey as a cadet is just starting. 

Earning the girls trust is a big deal. They all come to these camps and teams with an engrained set of skills taught to them by some very dedicated coach back in their home program. They have a comfort zone and belief system that takes time to learn. They all have different personalities that require me as a coach to get a feel for as quickly as possible. The USA staff and college coaches at these camps are a valuable source in speeding this process up but unlike my high school kids where I have been that beacon of technique and development there is a steep learning curve with the woman. That said, there are few areas I try to focus on to bring support to each athlete. First, I can be of most help cleaning up small correctable technical issues. There is not enough time to make wholesale changes at these camps nor the time to buck trends and habits they have built over a career but working on small adjustments and cleaning up position is critical to their success. Remember, position travels well. With this new athlete-coach relationship it’s better to ease into it rather than try and hammer on them. I try to be very succinct and always explain why changing a small area would benefit them. They need and want a justification. At the start I mentioned being stretched and this what I’m referring to – being a great teacher and using all my tools to help this athlete. It’s not easy to have an impact unless your really on it as a coach. 

Another area is tactics and strategy. On this years team half of the girls have never been to a World Championships. Giving them insight into the subtle differences in the international style and officiating is where my experience can benefit them. Any information you give during training has to go through a filter and the closer we get to competition the tighter that filter becomes. They need to have a clear and confident mind when they step on the mat and each individual will process the information you give them differently. 
Last is simple support from working to make there trip as worry free as possible. We cater to the needs of these athletes so they can have a singular focus and feel ready to roll come competition day. They are special and on the days leading up to competition they need to feel special. This is not pampering because what they are doing is very difficult. We don’t do this during training camps or regular practice all year long. This is facilitating the highest level of performance and feeling great is important. There are things I will do for the World Team members that I would make my high school kids do on their own. 
It’s a privilege to be a part of this and also an opportunity to hone my craft. I hope you enjoy the sharing of my journey. Go USA! 

Outside the box and into the Potato Head – Blog entry #6

It’s summer time and time to think outside the box. A staple of high school wrestling is the summer wrestling camp. This multi-million dollar industry has served many a wrestler and forged the dreams of winter champions. Before we head out to camp this morning I wanted to put some thoughts out on opening our minds to change.Coaches are notorious for being set in their ways. Let’s face it not many coaches change the way they do things after the first few years of their careers. Sure, they add a little technique here or there and probably some drills to go with but do they truly make substantial changes? We have our core beliefs and we stick to them and there is nothing wrong with that. Having a solid foundation and system is not only “best practices” it allows us to change without everything going to shit. Being creative and thinking outside the comfortable parameters is tough to do especially when you’ve been successful but it is also something we need to consider to continuously move forward. The sport changes, kids change, each team is different and if you don’t adjust as a coach your program will stall and become stagnant.

I felt this stagnation about ten years ago when I took my kids to the Oregon State team camp for the fourth year in a row. We would wrestle our duals, the kids would sit with their clichés in the lunch room, hang out with a select few in the dorm rooms, the coaches would go off and do their thing and do it again for the next three days. I was bored, my kids were bored and ultimately we were not getting much better. This is not in any way a knock of OSU or their coaches who I consider friends. This had to do with us, the Berzerkers and what we wanted to accomplish.

I had to ask myself what do I want out of summer camps for our kids and how could we achieve that in a costly manner. Here’s the list of what I wanted: coaches to spend quality time with the athletes, specific control of the technique, a hard drill session each day, a hard live session each day, team building activities between sessions, great food, fun, alumni to come and give back, in a unique setting that was different from Berzerkerville with like minded coaches to share and have brotherhood all at a reasonable price. Whew! Not much to ask really.

The technique I could handle and if not me one of my coaches. I didn’t need to bring in a world class wrestler to show their favorite move and shell-out thousands of dollars for something I had already worked on with my kids or watched on YouTube. One of my former wrestler’s dad owned a really cool campground in George, WA (much different climate than Lake Stevens). They opened only for large concerts at the Gorge, a world renowned outdoor amphitheater. Scott, the owner, was very gracious and opened his arms to our vision. Not only is it a great campground the food they cater is world class. It was the first camp I had been to where the kids and coaches couldn’t stop talking about how good the food was. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but our kids are very food conscious all season long and it’s nice to be able to break bread with your buddies without the stress of worrying about making weight the next day.
I enlisted my coaches to come up with team building activities between wrestling sessions. We broke the kids up into groups of seven or eight strategically placing potential leaders on each team (no more cliques and no more sitting in dorm rooms). The kids were creating skit’s, building business plans, doing dance contests and a lot of stuff that not only was fun but helped them get closer to each other and develop leaders. It always amazes me who emerges from these activities that might have never been a leader in the room. Stars were born outside the realm of wins and losses.
I invited our alumni that were still wrestling in college and some that had just finished. This created a great connection between the past and also provided great practice partners for our best guys. In the evenings before bed we sometimes would have talks about life skills and some of our most memorable times were when former wrestlers shared their stories with the campers.
After bedtime the coaches would gather and talk of the day’s events and plan for tomorrow. These conversations became collective discussions where we all took ownership of the technique, schedule, activities and any other issues. This shared involvement was the icing on the cake and created not only an atmosphere of community but also became a vehicle for growth. Outside of technique, how many coaches walk away from a camp knowing they just improved their craft?

The biggest issue was where would we wrestle? We had the mats and could haul them anywhere but being in the middle of farm land there was not a gym nearby. We looked possibly going to the local high school but that would up our costs and not be unique. Scott came up with the idea talking to his farm buddies of using a potato storage shed. These large corrugated steel Quonset hut looking structures are actually built to stay cool in very hot climates. This area of Washington can have temperatures above 100 degrees so having a place that can stay cool is essential. They have a lot of space and we could fit up to four mats in one. Perfect!

We are now in our eighth year of putting on The Potato Head Camp and have stuck with our original ideals. There have been changes and issues to address but that in itself is part of the challenge to keep it unique and serve our needs. There will come a time where we will try something different, possibly go back to Oregon State or Oklahoma State camps as we have in the past. One thing I know for sure if we do go back I’m bringing my team building activities with me and my team will never again hang out in a dorm room between sessions. It’s more work for the coaches but the goal is not to limit the coaches work load, the goal is to get better. 

This year we have expanded our efforts to expose our wrestlers while still having fun. Beyond our weekly practices and weight training we felt we needed more. This group isn’t a strong freestyle group that is looking to go to Fargo. In the past I have had upto eight kids wrestling on our state team and it was great. For whatever reason it’s been a hard sell with this particular group. We decided this spring we needed more to get this team to where they need to be and came up with the idea of taking a week and training with another to-knotch program. A few years back we attended a tournament in Montana with perennial California program Poway. Through our booster club we’ve rented a house a couple blocks from the beach in sunny San Diego and near enough to Poway. In the mornings we will strength and condition on the beach and in the evening practice with Poway. The daytime will be spent hanging out and having fun. On the Saturday before we leave we will wrestle in their tournament and head home Sunday. Not a bad way to spend a wrestling week in July. It will be fun but these decisions are always based on what it will do for us in terms of wrestling first. This is a prime example of thinking out of the box to make our team better. 

Blog entry #5 – The meaning of life

This past weekend I drove Highway 2 through the wheat fields of Eastern Washington with my son Burke to go camping. I have driven these roads before but it’s been quite a while. Sailing through the rolling hills of wheat for as far as the eye can see reminded me of what really matters.

Like so many coaches I went into this career to make a difference. As a teenager I had some struggles and there were coaches in my life who helped me not only get through the tough times but be successful. When I graduated from college and went into teaching/coaching I wanted to have the same impact on young people that my coaches had on me. I also wanted to have a winning program. I envisioned a program that won many state titles, competed on the national level and where our town had one of those welcome signs that said, Lake Stevens Home of the 12-time State Wrestling Champions.  We eventually got the titles but not the sign. It’s ironic that there is no sign because in the end it is not the trophy’s, championships or welcome signs that matter it is something much deeper.

At the beginning of my career developing a successful program seemed so easy and winning our schools first state title was honestly intoxicating. I brought the trophy home and placed it on our mantle for a couple of weeks. There were nights I would get out of bed, sit on the couch and just stare at it having to pinch myself.  We did it I can’t believe we did it. Watching my dad coach for years and never win a title surly put some added value on the accomplishment. I know it may sound naive and simple but that’s what we are when we’re young. I truly wanted to just build a championship program never really  thinking about building a bunch of relationships. In reality that’s exactly what we do each every day is build all different types of relationships. 

Throughout that spring and into the summer I rode a high that spurred me to work even harder on winning.  My team returned some key members one of which was a kid named Matt who had placed 4th in a very tough weight class. Matt was named our captain for the upcoming season. Like me at his age Matt was a kid that struggled outside of wrestling. His dad Robert, a former wrestling coach had died in a plane accident when Matt was eight years old. Matt was searching for a male role model and found one in me when I showed up his freshman year. We hit it off and I couldn’t have been prouder of a kid for turning the corner and cleaning is life up.

At wrestling camp that summer we had some long reflective conversations about alcohol, drugs and the future. Matt had confided that he had been sober for a few months and that he was working hard to put that stage of his life behind him. He also told me he wanted to wrestle in college and become a teacher like his dad. I left camp feeling really good about where he was headed and excited for the upcoming season. The captain of my team had battled demons and was ready to lead. I felt this team, with this leader and the returning members could make a serious run at another state championship. On the way back from Idaho I dropped Matt off at rest stop in the middle of wheat country in Eastern WA. He was going to work his uncle’s wheat farm for the remainder of the summer. It was a very hot day when he shook my hand and thanked me. We hugged and said our good byes. I got back in the car, air conditioning on high and drove away waving to Matt.  He sat on his bag in the grass waving back while waiting for his uncle to come pick him up.

Coaching has always been a season to season endeavor for me.  Looking at each team as an individual entity I work to shore up the weak spots, fill the spaces vacated by graduating seniors and finding the right leaders to bring it all together is part of the craft I enjoy most.  I’m like that wheat farmer who each year busts his ass to make sure his crop yields the best returns.  Sometimes there are things out of our control like weather or maybe not having the right mix of kids to work with that affect the outcome. One thing good farmers and coaches do is to take care of all the variables within their control to ensure the best possible crop. We can sleep well at night knowing we did everything necessary to achieve the highest level of success given that years components.

It was now mid-July and with camp over summer vacation was in full swing. In the summer of 1990 Seattle hosted the Goodwill Games and I had a job mat side running the video for protests and reviews. Upon returning home from camp I was in a state of wrestling euphoria. The greatest wrestlers in the world were going to descend on Seattle and I would have front row seats. I knew many of the competitors from my college days and was looking forward to re-connecting with some old friends.  Things couldn’t get any better.

Enjoying an easy morning with no pressing commitments I had just finished a cup of coffee and the daily paper when the phone rang. I can’t remember now who was on the other end but if I was to guess it was probably my assistant coach Dean. On the other end of the line was news that Matt had died in a motorcycle accident going out to work the wheat fields that morning. I learned later he was following his uncle out to fields on his motor cycle. Matt didn’t see him come to an abrupt stop because of the dust cloud and rammed the back of the truck crushing his chest and dying on the spot.

Up to that point in my 26 year life, other than my grandparents I had never lost someone I was close to. The next weekend I drove the four hours to the small farming town of Harrington to attend Matt’s funeral. The air was bent by the heat and sadness of the day. In the middle of a field a small white church held Matt’s family, a minister, a group of twenty or so of his Harrington friends and a small number of people from Lake Stevens.  Stocks of wheat, brown and dry waved in the afternoon wind. Matt’s body lay in an open casket flanked by memorabilia of youth. Bouquets of wheat, handwritten notes, key chains, a couple cans of chewing tobacco and other fragments of shared memory.  I leaned over and again said my goodbyes to Matt and in turn much of my innocence. My farewells at the rest area just days before held hope and anticipation now were replaced with an abrupt finality of emptiness. On the lonely drive back through those wheat fields I sobbed like I had never before.  I couldn’t stop saying to myself, “we were just getting started, we were just getting started.” My feelings were only eclipsed by the pain I felt for Matt’s mom who had now lost both her husband and son way too early in life.

When I got back to my family that day I can remember how tired I was and how hard it was to look at my own little daughter and son without feeling a sense of fragility. Life could be so cruel and unpredictable. I cried for the first time in front of my son that day knowing full and well there are no guarantees that life will go just as we plan.

In the following weeks and months the hurt and loss was replaced by the great memories of Matt.  I went to the Goodwill Games and watched one of the greatest victories in wrestling history as the US defeated Russia in a thrilling and dominate performance. It was cathartic to get back to the sport and lose myself in the event. The next season would come and pass with a heaviness I didn’t know how to change or prevent. We all thought about Matt a lot that year and still do even to this day.

Ultimately, this tragic moment taught me the most profound lesson of my life and altered how I look at coaching. I realized on that day the State titles and championships won are truly secondary to the relationships we build. Working toward goals are great but the definitive accomplishment in all that work is rather shallow if we don’t create meaningful relationships along the way.  As coaches and teachers we may never really know the true value of the moments we share with our athletes and students. Losing Matt made me realize how his experiences on earth were highlighted by what he did in the wrestling program and the deep and meaningful relationships he developed in his short life. Every once in awhile when we are chasing down those titles and grinding away at the sport we need to remind ourselves of what is truly important as there’s no guarantee it will last for long.

Slicksters & Grinders. Blog entry #4

When I was a Jr. in college at Oklahoma State my coach, Paul Martin came to me and said in his “Okie” twang, “Barnesy your a grinder not a slickster. You need to bang people and not worry so much about being slick.” Being dumb and young and full of silly pride I took that as – you are not a very good athlete and therefore you are not going to be like some of these other guys. I wanted to be like Kenny Monday but what I didn’t realize is I didn’t have to be like Kenny to have success. The other thing I didn’t know at the time there was really no one quite like Kenny. It was incredibly short sighted of me and what Paul was telling me in so many words was, this is your box learn to wrestle with-in it and become very good at a few things. All I had to do was look at the success Iowa was having with a whole slew of these so-called grinders. This past weekend at the World Team Trials we watched a bunch of guys make the world team that could be considered grinders.

My team being really young and inexperienced the past two years we have spent more time in instruction mode than in the past. We have made a concerted effort to expose them to a plethora of techniques at the cost of wrestling a lot of live. It is a balance that must be reached and for the past month I have been feeling like we have been a little out of balance. I have even voiced this to my team numerous times how we need to get more mat time. I have an itch for live wrestling right now. One positive attribute of wrestling live is it builds mental toughness. Live wrestling is the fight we always talk about and you only learn how to fight by stepping into the fire. So, even at the cost of getting technically sloppy and forming a few bad habits it’s time to grind. I also know I can clean them up later. There is give and take with everything and coaching is about finding the right balance. It’s time to develop some slicksters that can grind and some grinders that have a touch of slick.

As a team I also feel we’ve reached the saturation point on wholesale group technique and controlled live situations and we need to start fitting guys into boxes and start developing a style, strategy and set of techniques that they will own. My team right now can drill a lot of stuff but we are not masters of any particular specialty.  The good thing is they are all about at the same level so forming these goals is relatively easy as it covers the bulk of our athletes. That said the combination of letting these kids wrestle and helping them figure out who they need to be to get the most out of their potential is a tough go with thirty athletes and three coaches. There are going to be some conversations like Coach Martin had with me and it is going to be followed up by an explanation of what and why.

Each of us as coaches and athletes have to decide what is essential to our success. We need to have a clear picture of what this should look like in action. After watching David Taylor this past weekend in the trials and comparing him as a collegiate wrestler it is even more stark the specific style changes wrestlers must make to have success at the highest level. As a student of the sport it’s fun to watch this transition.

I said on Saturday, like many others, this year’s trials rivaled ’96 in Spokane with Cross and Brands. That match-up was a very distinct example of having two contrasting styles and guys knowing the box they fit in. Cross couldn’t be more different than Brands and it’s probably what made the match-up so fun. Dake/Burroughs and Cox/Taylor are other great style match-ups.

Owning your style, being able to attack a single leg and finish it and owning the center of the mat were three things that I felt jumped out at me from this past weekend. On Sunday I watched some Iranians and their style and ability to not only own the center but push their opponents into the zone is another glaring example of having a technical/strategic box. They’re entire team seem to be masters at these basic skills. I’m definitely looking forward to Paris.

Coaching at it’s highest level is such a thoughtful and present endeavor. Not only taking the time to self reflect but having a “system” to fit the needed changes into it is essential for success. When we start to talk about all the aspects that go into forming a singular practice we have to consider our audience, philosophy, individual style, time of year, weaknesses, strengths, time management, what is essential and a huge number of other factors not to mention the silly pride of that one athlete who can’t see beyond his own nose.